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CHRIS: [Looking out into the night- lost in somber preoccupation- shakes his head and mutters.] Fog, fog, fog, all bloody time. You can’t see where you was going, no. Only dat ole devil, sea – she knows!
Amid the search of harbor lights, buoyed on waves, and pulled by a current, the truth refuses to stay adrift. Inevitably, the past always tends to wash ashore. Fortunately for theatergoers, Triad Stage’s remarkable production of Eugene O’Neill’s Anna Christie proves that the past is rich with theatrical gems!
After some 15 years of separation, the worn out Anna Christie (formally Christopherson) is reunited with her gruff Swedish father, who abandoned the family when she was a young girl to travel the world as a career sailor. Upon the death of her mother, Anna was sent to live with cousins on a farm in Minneapolis, where she was worked savagely and abused before running away. Now, while taking refuge on her estranged father’s coal barge, a shipwrecked Irish stoker is rescued, and a romance ensues. As passion and frustration intensify, Anna is forced to reveal her dark past as a prostitute. All three, (father, daughter, and lover) are required to break themselves down with the truth in order to rebuild.
Essentially, O’Neill uses the play as an examination of genealogical cycles. Each character, in one way or another, must rebuke or succumb to their own hereditary dysfunctions. Although the play is an earlier success of O’Neill’s illustrious career, the technique of Realism is prevalent throughout, for which he is accredited as introducing to the American Stage. With possible exception for the ending, which historically has been criticized and debated, the play chronicles realistic experiences and vernacular of the people and time.
In the title role, Gardner Reed beautifully captured the cynicism and strength of a woman forced into independence at a time when women had few options. The feat of portraying a character like Anna is balancing a confident exterior, while being riddled with insecurity. Reed was heartwarmingly vulnerable, fiery, and strong in a role that, in some regards, is an early feminist interpretation. Matthew Bellows as the brawny bare-chested Mat was magnetic. Bellows’ embodiment of Irish masculinity, dominant and violently impulsive, was juxtaposed perfectly with his character’s raw emotion and tenderness. Both Reed and Bellows were justly matched for one another, and the chemistry was abundant.
Gordon Joseph Weiss is quite familiar to Triad Stage audiences as he is most warmly recognized as Ebenezer Scrooge in the annual production of A Christmas Carol. Therefore, it is no surprise that currently, in the role of Chris Christopherson, he commands the stage with theatrical virtuosity. Weiss, a full-bodied actor whose characters manifest themselves with intricate nuances, was nothing short of captivating to watch. He was able to emote – down to his fingertips – the deep emotional conflict as well as sincere remorse his character endures throughout the production. Yet, the most impressive attribute of his performance laid prominently in is his vocal work, which required a mastery of the Swedish accent and dialect. Watching Weiss tackle any role, especially in this production, is a master class for all that dream of a life upon the stage.
The omnipresent “ole devil sea,” as referred to by Christopherson, is unquestionably the most imperative component of the piece. In many cases, the struggle with producing Anna Christie is that theatres fail to evoke the palpable spirit of the ocean and its wielding effects on the characters it relates to. Scenic designer Fred Kinney was victorious in showcasing the salt-water melancholy which backdrops the world of the play. What the set may lack in gratuitousness, relatively stripped in comparison to previous productions in The Pyrle, it more than compensates for in consideration for detail. The use of steel panels as a platform, underlined by a faintly water-like material, as well as the sprawling companionway ladder that connects the two levels of the stage is ingenious.
In reference to the creative intention of his design, Kinney states, “I wanted the materials that the set is built from, the weathered wood, steel, rope, to echo the harsh environment, both internal and external, the characters find themselves. With the minimalistic color and texture, I want the set to capture the longing sound of a distant fog horn.”
Miwa Ishii, costume designer, authenticates the late 1910’s time period with a subdued color scheme and garments based in practicality for the working class. Ishii was able to convey the quickly evolving fashions during the time surrounding the Great War, such as a loosening of silhouettes for both men and women. The lighting design of Jiyoun Chang, amplified dingy gloom with soft, yellow floor lighting circling around the stage platform, and spots which generate an almost candlelit quality. The dance of light as it breaks through the mist and fog created isolation for the audience. In turn, the atmosphere was not only thick, but haunting as well.
Triad Stage continues to capitalize on artistic collaborations that breathe new perspective into how we revere regional theatre.
Anna Christie continues through Sunday, March 2. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.